Recently I ran into a friend and fellow believer. He was recounting for me an exchange that he’d had in a philosophy class. He and his classmates were discussing whether or not there were actual moral truths. To those that believed that, which was most of the class, agreed that things like murder, adultery, and rape were objectively wrong. The discussion then became how we know what is wrong is actually wrong. To this, my friend raised his Bible. Then the professor raised a question: given that what God commands is morally good, is it morally good because He commands it, or does He command it because it is morally good?
The argument goes something like this: let’s say that God gives a new modern-day revelation. He comes down and tells His people “I like what you guys are doing, but I have a few changes I want you to make. I want you to execute the third child of every family, just ’cause. Then I need you to rape someone about once a year. Oh, and blacks can’t be Christians anymore. We have to kick those people out.” Would arbitrary murder, rape, and racism then become morally good?
Our instinct reaction is to say “Well of course not! And God would never command those things, because He’s good!” I agree. But for many people, most of all for unbelievers, it’s just not that simple. You see, if you make that claim, that’s the same as saying that truth exists independent of God. Something is good not because God commanded it, but because it’s good independent of Him. He just commands it because it’s good. So then, one could argue, God may still be good, but He is no longer the source of truth, only the propagator of it. If we don’t like that conclusion, then the alternative is that something is good simply because God commands it, which to some extent makes truth relative, rendering any argument to the aforementioned scenario moot. See the dilemma?
This is a discussion that is known in philosophy as the Euthyphro dilemma, in which Plato asked the same question in different terms, essentially using the word “pious” instead of “good.” It’s a question that religious philosophers have grappled with for centuries, and one that skeptics love to issue as reason that the Judeo-Christian God is simply illogical. After all, if your options are either that God is bound by a moral code, or that God’s morality is arbitrary, neither of those options seem to mesh with Scripture. But I propose a third option: that we don’t even understand what we’re saying when we use the word “good.”
Our assumption when describing this dilemma is that what is morally good is defined by our consciences and what we understand to be morally good and right. And if, at any point, something acts contrary to that, and we understand that these things are morally wrong, then we may attribute that to an eternal measure of objective right and wrong. So why, I ask, can’t that be God Himself?
In other words, why do we think that an objective (as compared to arbitrary) measure of what is right and wrong cannot come from God Himself? Let’s use another example: God is love. We know that from 1 John 4:8. Now does the traditional Christian understanding of this passage posit that God is bound by the eternal objective virtue of love or that He arbitrarily assigns what his invention of love will be defined as? You’re probably looking at the screen with a bit of a disgusted expression about now, and you’d be right to – because we understand that either of those explanations are not even relatively close to what the passage is saying. Rather, the passage is saying that God embodies love, that the loving part of Him is how we understand what love is. Love is not something that exists separate from God, but rather love is an attribute of God, and therefore God is that thing.
It’s the same thing when it comes to moral goodness. God does not propagate good nor does He arbitrarily assign a definition to it, but rather moral good is a description of the character of God. Therefore, when we say something is good, we are ultimately saying that it matches the character of God. So when Psalm 136:1 says “Give thanks to Jehovah, for He is good,” it is not simply saying that He abides by this moral standard that you have, in your manifold wisdom, identified about the world, but it is saying that in all that you can see that is good in the world, everything that you identify as positive, as what is right, that and so much more is God. He is the source of all of that. So then, what He commands is not good because goodness exists apart from God or because goodness is arbitrary, but because God is goodness, and God is virtue, and his commandments are expressions of Himself, and His desire to make us like Him.